Let me tell you about a man called William James Bull.
He was a builder from Maidstone in Kent, and of no importance to anyone but his family.
When the Great War began in 1914 one week after his 37th birthday, he was father to 8 living children, and another two that had died in infancy.
He had been husband to Elizabeth for 16 years, and she came from a long line of rural Dissenters – non-conformists who had turned their backs on the established church, and by extension the squires and landowners, during periods of starvation in the countryside.
They went to chapel, not church. They worked hard six days a week, but never on a Sunday. And when war came, they were cheap meat.
Bill Bull was called up after a year, when the Western Front reached stalemate and three months after chlorine gas was first used by the Germans at Ypres.
But he was not given a gun. Bill was given a shovel, and told to dig.
Private Bull, service number 13803, joined the Army Service Corps whose job it was to supply the troops with food, equipment, ammunition, horses and vehicles. But Bill was seconded to the Labour Corps – one of the worst, and most terrifying, jobs it was possible to do.
The corps consisted of 389,000 men whose job it was to dig the trenches. They went past their own front line, up to their waists in mud, to dig and build. They did so within reach of enemy guns, taking fire and being shelled, for long periods.
I can tell you nothing about Bill’s time on the front, because no-one thought it mattered enough to record it. The only note on his Army record is that he was once arrested in Rouen while on leave. It states his offences were "1. Being in town without a pass 2. Being improperly dressed 3. Drunkenness."
He was deprived of 3 days’ pay, and considering how he spent three years of his life no decent human could begrudge the man a few beers and maybe mislaying his shirt.
In April 1918 he will have received word that his oldest son, an 18-year-old lad called Reggie who had kidney problems, had died at home in Kent. Elizabeth had nursed him through his final hours.
In November of that year the European powers who had sent Bill into the jaws of death armed with a spade, and ordered him to dig a front line that barely moved while swallowing a million lives, called a ceasefire. They signed the Armistice and the guns that had echoed in Bill’s ears for so long finally fell silent.
He returned home in early 1919, there to greet his wife, their seven surviving children, and one extra – a little girl, not yet 3, who had been born 9 months after he left for war.
Bill went back to building. His sons worked alongside him. He raised his family. And in his sixties he watched as the world went to war again, heard the Luftwaffe drone overhead towards London, and the Spitfires and Hurricanes dogfight with Messerschmitts above his rented house.
He saw his sons go to war, and his sons-in-law. Not for power, this time, but because of a threat of Nazi domination.
Bill Bull died at home, of natural causes, in 1954 at the age of 77. He was not an officer, an aristocrat, or a poet. The Labour Corps were considered second-class soldiers, barely worthy of mention – some of the units consisted of colonial soldiers, Chinese, and others thought inferior. No-one marked his life or death, apart from those who loved him.
Bill was what is known in Army records as ‘O.R.’ – ‘other rank’. A prole, a peasant, a useful piece on the board for generals to push forward, sacrifice or save depending upon their strategic whim, decided over brandy a dozen miles from danger.
He did not matter to them, in the same way he does not matter today to Aaron Bastani, a chippy little agitator who considers himself a Labour supporter, a Corbynista, and above such things as wearing a poppy.
He said: "I think the poppy appeal is grotesque, it has a kind of triumphalist militarism to it. It’s racist, right, it’s white supremacist."
I am not a racist, a white supremacist, or a glorifier of war. I am Bill’s great-granddaughter. The toddler he came home to was my gran, and she was a proud Labour supporter, and Mirror reader, her whole life.
I wear a poppy to remember Bill and the millions like him who died, served, suffered and survived horrors that were not of their choosing. The poppy represents futility, death, waste, oppression, and the truth that history is not only written by the victors, but by the privileged – those with a voice, through wealth, rank or platform. Those like Bastani.
But history depends far more on the people below, the ones who stood and fought and died in the dirt. The one benefit of war is that it levels all humans – they drowned in the mud of the Somme, were blown up by the Taliban, regardless of rank or wealth.
The poppy represents the unnoticed masses, the voiceless working class, the unprivileged, unheard, undecorated. It’s not triumphant; it’s pitiful. The displays of 800,000 poppies at the Tower of London in 2014, the 72,396 figures representing soldiers from the Somme whose bodies were never recovered, the millions who stop and think or pray or weep this Sunday, all show that there can be nothing more fitting for Labour supporters to do than to wear a poppy with pride.
After the Great War, men like Bill Bull returned home knowing equality was mankind’s end state. After the Second World War, men who had never been out of their home towns came back educated by foreign cultures and classless comrades.
The country applauded Winston Churchill on his victory parade around Britain, and booted him out in a Labour landslide that demanded social justice, the welfare state, and international friendship.
The Labour Party was conceived in those early days of Dissenters, of Chartists, of Peterloo. It grew after the levelling of the Great War, and it blossomed in the 1945 general election. Perhaps it means nothing to Bastani – a "libertarian Communist" with a little education, but nowhere near enough – but to millions of others it means people.
Hearing people, honouring people, helping people. Not pouring scorn, or stupidly claiming that everyone who fought in a war agreed with the aims of those who told them to.
I wear a poppy to remember that war was hell, and war meant a demand for change. My life is better than that of all my ancestors not because they "fought for freedom", as politicians like to claim, but because after they’d fought on the orders of others they turned around to their overlords and said: "Never again."
We owe thanks for that to the ‘Other Ranks’, the nameless, faceless millions who have long been forgotten by everyone but their families.
A poppy the colour of blood is the most appropriate way to remember them.
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